Before enlisting Aquinas in the cause of activist government, one should consider his admonitions that human law not try to repress all vices or prescribe all virtues. It should not be like Calvin’s Geneva, or our Calvinist-like secular state of today which increasingly seeks to regiment so many areas of life. It certainly should be concerned about promoting virtue – the social teaching of the Church says that one of government’s roles, to be sure, is to make men better – but it must also be realistic and aware of other problems that could easily develop if it pushes too far. It’s not a question of government having either an activist or minimalist role, but a proper one. As the noted post-World War II American Catholic theologian Fr. Francis J. Connell said, “excessive legislation is very harmful to the welfare of a nation.”
To be sure, the role of government is not the same for all countries at all times. We can say there is perhaps a range of what is acceptable and expected depending such considerations as a people’s history, tradition, and level of socio-political development. This is very much like Aristotle’s famous typology of good and perverted regimes; there can be more than one type of good or acceptable regime and what is best for one people may not best for another. Fr. Connell said that “unnecessary legislation” is against the spirit of a country like the U.S. Maybe Obama and the left should be thinking about that as they try to import European social democracy to the U.S. Actually, the recent meltdowns – economic and otherwise – show that these social democracies have gone beyond what in absolute terms is the reasonable range. Among other things, their excessive taxation on the productive element of their populations have long since surpassed the level that Rerum Novarum would have considered immoral, since it is essentially an infringement on the right of private property (35).
Then there is the nagging question of subsidiarity. The book reviewer mentioned insisted that my claim that activities ought to be carried on at the lowest possible level in society is not magisterial teaching. They should be done at their “proper places.” To be sure, some activities by nature go to the highest level. A local government could not carry out national defense. It is hard to claim, however, that Pope Pius XI’s classic definition of subsidiarity – “it is an injustice… a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed…by lesser and subordinate bodies” (Quadragesimo Anno, 79) – does not demand turning to the lower level whenever possible. A leading current authority on subsidiarity, Professor John J. Schrems, says, “The burden of proof lies always on those who want to deprive a lower level of its function.” From her consistent stress on intermediary (civil society) groups to her high regard for the family farm and small-scale enterprise to Pope John Paul II’s call to turn away from the welfare state and take care of human needs at a level “closest to… those in need” (Centesimus Annus, 48-49), the Church makes it abundantly clear that activities be done at the “local” level wherever possible and practicable.
Instead of government setting up more programs, political leaders should work to stimulate and cajole – using the bully pulpit, if necessary – action by civil society. Again, not all that government should do is legislate.
Faithful Catholics should be careful about falling into the trap that government action and new public policies are the ready solution to all social problems. The Church’s social reaching suggests otherwise and, contrary to the prevailing view, in the nature of things government is often not capable of handling them.
Stephen M. Krason’s “Neither Left nor Right, but Catholic” column appears monthly (sometimes bi-monthly) in Crisis. He is Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies and Associate Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is also Co-Founder and President of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists. He is the author of several books including The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic (Transaction Publishers, 2012), and most recently published an edited volume entitled Child Abuse, Family Rights, and the Child Protective System (Scarecrow Press, 2013). This column may be reprinted so long as its initial publication in Crisis is noted.